By E.J. Dionne Jr.
WASHINGTON -- When old regulations meet new technologies, there is bound to be confusion.
Last month, the Federal Election Commission issued a rule regulating political activity on the Internet. To see how the new rule was reported, I fired up one of my favorite search engines, and what did I find?
One headline summarized the new rule as follows: Proposed FEC Rules Would Exempt Most Political Activity on Internet. Another headline read: FEC Rules Would Regulate Paid Internet Ads.
So which is it, more regulation or less? The best headline summarizing the controversy appeared over an article by Dave Helling in The Kansas City Star: Oh, what a tangled Web we weave. Indeed.
The new FEC rule is not that complicated, but it did involve some careful balancing. The commission, under pressure from a court decision, decided that paid advertising on the Internet should be subject to the same regulations as paid advertising on television, radio or in the newspapers. The restrictions on the use of unregulated soft money that apply to the old media would apply to the new media too.
At the same time, bloggers won what they had long sought: exemptions from regulations on what they can say that are akin to those that apply to what is now quaintly called the old media. For bloggers, it was a Let Freedom Ring moment.
The decision could be looked at as a classic political compromise: Campaign reformers got something they wanted (the Web would not be allowed to become the loophole that ate all campaign finance regulations), while bloggers got something they wanted (freedom to inform, opine, fulminate and enrage, i.e., to speak their minds).
But the decision was better than your usual split-the-difference Washington sausage-making because it acknowledged that two serious principles are at stake, and because it sought to make sure that regulations would be applied uniformly across media outlets.
The two principles are free speech and the ability of our democratic political system to protect itself from corruption.
Like many political junkies, I have become a consumer of political blogs -- and if I werent, my blog-minded brother-in-law would send me the juicy stuff. I may not agree with everything on the Daily Kos or the Huffington Post or Captains Quarters or Power Line, but they have the same right I have to say what they think, even if (sigh) that sometimes means that they attack what I write. Its called open debate.
But from the time of Theodore Roosevelt to the present, reformers have been right to point to the ways in which big money can distort the democratic process. As Justices John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day OConnor wrote in their 2003 decision upholding the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, unregulated campaign contributions can have a corrupting influence or give rise to the appearance of corruption.
The danger, they said, is that officeholders will decide issues not on the merits or the desires of their constituencies, but according to the wishes of those who have made large financial contributions valued by the officeholder. Stevens and OConnor saw campaign finance rules as the best way to remove the temptation.
Thats why Congress should resist any bill that would overturn the FECs shrewd ruling and let money slosh around freely on the Internet. Fred Wertheimer, the veteran campaign-finance reformer, noted that it would be odd indeed if the financing of advertisements in the print version of The Washington Post came under regulation but ads on washingtonpost.com did not.
Theres a catch, though: We have little idea of how the Internet will develop in the coming years or how campaigns will use it. As both the Post and The New York Times reported over the weekend, campaigns are increasingly clever at deploying the new technologies to reach voters and attack opponents. It will be more difficult to distinguish between individual partisans and political parties themselves.
In this situation, a large dose of humility is in order. It would be wonderful if the Internet proved to be as brilliantly self-correcting as its enthusiasts claim it will be. Lets hope partisan bloggers on the one side help expose abuses by partisan bloggers on the other.
But lets also remember what Stevens and OConnor said about political dollars, that money, like water, will always find an outlet. If ingenious political operatives use the Internet to shred the campaign laws, we can figure out what to do about the abuses when they happen. I hope they never do, but I also hope we keep our eyes open -- with, let it be said, the help of the blogosphere.
2006, Washington Post Writers Group